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Originally published August 23, 2009 at 12:13 AM | Page modified August 24, 2009 at 9:53 AM

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Book review

"The Philosophical Baby": fascinating look inside a powerful learning machine

Psychology professor Alison Gopnik investigates infant intelligence and perception in "The Philosophical Baby."

Special to The Seattle Times

Author appearance

Alison Gopnik

The author of "The Philosophical Baby" will discuss her book at 7:30 p.m. Sept. 9 at Town Hall Seattle. Sponsored by the University Book Store (206-634-3400; www.ubookstore.com).

"The Philosophical Baby: What Children's Minds Tell Us About Truth, Love, and the Meaning of Life"

by Alison Gopnik

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 288 pp., $25

The baby sits on the living-room floor, intently fiddling with Dad's cellphone and looking for all the world as if she's getting ready to text. Her parents watch and wonder: What's going on inside that 1-year-old head? How much does she really understand about the world around her? And, perhaps most urgently, are we doing everything we can to make sure she develops into the smart, inquisitive, empathetic person we so desperately want her to become?

Breathes there a parent who hasn't wondered such things, and regretted that babies' brains don't come with operating manuals? Alison Gopnik's new book, "The Philosophical Baby," tries to both synthesize the latest research on how babies think and draw larger lessons for the grown-up world.

"We used to think that babies and young children were irrational, egocentric, and amoral. Their thinking and experience were concrete, immediate, and limited," writes Gopnik, a psychology professor at the University of California, Berkeley.

In fact, "babies not only learn more, but imagine more, care more, and experience more than we would ever have thought possible. In some ways, young children are actually smarter, more imaginative, more caring, and even more conscious than adults are."

Take the matter of babies' consciousness. Adults typically experience things either as a blur of half-perceived, dimly remembered images and stimuli (as anyone who wonders "Where did my weekend go?" can attest), or as discrete, vivid experiences, when we concentrate on something intensely and the rest of the world seems to fall away. Babies, however, lack the experiential filters that allow adult brains to decide some things (that truck edging into our lane) are more important to focus on than others (the rush of people at a busy intersection). To a baby, Gopnik writes, everything is important, or at least new: "Instead of experiencing a single aspect of their world and shutting down everything else they seem to be vividly experiencing everything at once."

Which probably is a good thing, since babies and toddlers spend their time exploring the world and figuring out how it works. And because their brains are so plastic and such powerful learning machines, children can propose different answers to questions such as "Why is the sky blue?", puzzle out the rules of interpersonal relations with imaginary friends, and create elaborate games out of a few blocks and balls.

Children, Gopnik writes, "are the R&D department of the human species ... They think up a million new ideas, mostly useless, and we (the adults) take the three or four good ones and make them real."

Though she occasionally bogs down in science-speak, Gopnik's descriptions of what psychological research reveals about babies' surprisingly sophisticated thinking is fascinating. But her attempt to extrapolate larger conclusions about "truth, love, and the meaning of life" (as her subtitle puts it) is less grounded in concrete fact, and therefore less convincing.

Part of the problem, she acknowledges, is the very nature of her subject: "One of the worst things about writing about the importance of children is that practically everything you say turns out to sound like a greeting card."

Still, couldn't she have come up with a fresher conclusion than that "children are our future?"

Nonetheless, anyone who's looked at a baby smeared with orange glop and tried to see the adult she will become will appreciate Gopnik's reporting. It's comforting to see the roots of a caring, generous person in a tiny hand holding out a gummed-up teething biscuit.

Copyright © The Seattle Times Company

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